Davidson MiddleEast trip


Jim Davidson

Goes to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Burma,
and The Federated Malay States

This comes from the Rotarian for November 1928.

The British as a nation have always been addicted to clubs, as a page ‘The Forerunners of Rotary’ testifies. They like to recreate their home world in whatever country they might be. So wherever Colonial Officers, professionals and businessmen found themselves in the Empire in the 20s and 30s, there was a good chance of a Rotary Club being formed. Indeed, a letter in 1929 in the Rotary Wheel, specifically invites English Rotarians to visit the Bombay Club when in the city.

It was therefore appropriate that Honorary Special Commissioner of Rotary International, James W. Davidson, began his world tour on August 31st with a visit to London, where he had interviews with the British Colonial Office, Foreign Office and India Office. The Secretaries of State for these three departments communicated with their representatives at places on the line of his route, which the commissioner expected to find very useful. From London he went to Holland and spoke at meetings in Amsterdam, Haarlem and the Hague. While there he met the Dutch Secretary for the Colonies and was given an introduction to the Governor General of Java, which he hoped would lead to the successful launching of a Rotary Club in Batavia, a part of what is now Djakarta.

From Holland, he travelled onto Zurich before going on to Paris. There, with the help of local Rotarians, he arranged contacts for Syria and Saigon. Jim Davidson next took a train on the route of the Orient Express for Constantinople (Istanbul).

In a report in the British Rotary magazine ‘Rotary Wheel’ in August 1929, there is an account of Jim Davidson, the Special Commissioner for Rotary Extension, arriving in Istanbul, Turkey in 1928. Although some meetings were arranged and several officials expressed interest, Davidson left Turkey with the feeling that it would take perhaps years before conditions in Turkey were such that the introduction of such a movement as Rotary could be successfully accomplished. He was right. Istanbul was not chartered till 1955.

Leaving Istanbul, Jim Davidson flew to Athens on November 18, 1928 and within less than a month had found enough business and professional men to unite in organising a Rotary Club. This brought together men of sharply divided political opinions, both Royalists and Republicans, under the presidency of Spiro Loverdos, one of the leading bankers in Athens. The charter membership was entirely Greek, unlike many of Davidson’s other clubs. The charter was presented and the club formally received into Rotary on January 30, 1929.


During his tour of the Middle East in 1928 and 1929, Jim Davidson first flew from Greece to Egypt for a brief visit to Cairo where on December 29, 1928, the Cairo Club was inaugurated. This new club in was due to be presented with a Rotary flag as the first club in the country. For this special occasion, the officers had an original idea. Its members chartered a Nile steamer for the occasion. On the morning of March11, 1929, the Rotarians and their guests embarked on the boat and steamed sedately up the river. Luncheon was served afloat and was followed by the presentation of the Charter and Flag, possibly the first and only time this has been done on a boat. Some time after tea, the party returned to Cairo. Thus, the Cairo Club was launched!!


Jim Davidson next went on to Palestine. Unlike some of the other Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey and Egypt, the racial differences in Palestine and the city of Jerusalem do not seem to have caused any serious problems for establishing Rotary. The local people had a far more international outlook which helped. Davidson found that there was already in existence the nucleus of a Rotary Club brought together by Rotarian Edward Wicher of San Anselmo, California, who at the time was spending a year as a Professor in the American School of Archaeology in Jerusalem.

Davidson and Wisher were able to bring together Jews, Arabs, British and Turks into a club. Davidson said that the club gave strong evidence of unity and hoped that its influence would spread to other cities in Palestine . Although he left Jerusalem on February 9, 1929, the club was officially chartered on the same day as the Cairo club, March 11, 1929.


Davidson left Jerusalem on February 9, travelling via Damascus in Arabia and Bagdad in Persia to Bombay. However, he did not remain long enough in either country to organise any Rotary Clubs. His first real stop over was in Bombay where on March 19, he reported that he had succeeded in organising a Rotary Club. He wrote that he “had found business and professional men of the highest type- some of them Indians but most of them British. A sufficient number of British is an essential today for a successful Rotary Club in India. Later on it may be possible to have Clubs composed entirely of natives.” After visiting other Indian cities, he set out for Thayetmyo in Burma and Kuala Lumpur in the Federated Malay States.

He did note that “in both places there are groups of men who have, during the past year, organised themselves as Rotary Clubs and applied to the International Headquarters for recognition.” Unfortunately not all their activities and organisation met with official approval. It was being left to Jim Davidson to sort out some inconsistencies. For example Kuala Lumpur desired to have three members for each classification, one Malay, one Chinese and one European.


The Rangoon Club, described by Davidson, as the second in Burma after Thayetmo, was inaugurated in September 192 9. Thayetmo received its charter on September 30, 1929. Rangoon started with 88 members. As Davidson pointed out “The reason for having so many charter members is that owing to the peculiar conditions in Asia, with so many going away on home leave (to Britain), it is important that clubs be started with as large a membership as possible.” Jim Davidson went on to observe that “the Rangoon Club is a true cross section of the community of officials, business and professional men.” Thus, the President was the Chairman of the Government’s Development Trust, the Secretary the Manager of the Royal Insurance Company and the Vice President the Accountant General for Burma.

All were British. The charter was dated November 27,1929.

Thayetmo The First Club in Burma

W.J.Barretto, the Deputy British Commissioner, who had his headquarters in Thayetmyo, had visited the Rotary Club of Cork in Ireland in late 1927 whiilst on leave. He was so impressed that on his return to Burma, he organised a Club bearing the name ‘The Rotary Club of Thayetmyo’ with the happy motto “Under Heaven, One Family’. This was in May 1928. Lacking information about the correct procedures, this new club did not conform with normal Rotary International practice. As a result, when they applied to R.I. for acceptance into Rotary, it was deemed necessary to postpone action until Jim Davidson could personally call upon them.

In the summer of 1929, Jim Davidson spent three days in the city and was pleased to find a successful club of 33 members. During his stay, he found the members quite willing to make the necessary, and in some cases rather radical changes in order that they might be officially inaugurated. On July 17, 1929, the Thayetmyo Club was officially inaugurated with W.J.Barretto as President, and 2 months later on September 30, it received its charter, just beating the second club, in Rangoon.

Because there was no suitable hotel or other meeting place in Thayetmyo, the members had previously bought a suitable building with grounds overlooking the Irrawaddy where it met for tea every Saturday evening at 5, and for dinner once a month.

In 1929, there were only six Europeans resident in the city, so the greater majority of the membership was Burmese. Davidson remarked that “It will be interesting to watch its progress. If it can succeed, there is a prospect for further similar clubs in places that have a small European community or even where there are no Europeans at all.”

During the occupation of the country in the Second World War, all Rotary activity ceased and the Thayetmyo Club has never been re-opened.


Until 1948 the Federated Malay States were a British Crown Colony, consisting of several states each with its own constitution and ruler. Although we only record Seremban as the first in what is now Malaysia, there were Rotary Clubs in most of the states. Seremban Rotary Club is in the state of Negeri Semblan, a major centre for the rubber plantations. Jim Davidson wrote that “they had got together 24 men all definitely interested. On the 19th (September 1929) I met up with the Board, and after they had agreed to make certain changes in classifications, meeting periods, etc., I was prepared to hold an inauguration meeting at once on the occasion of a dinner previously arranged. There were some 60 present, including several from Kuala Lumpur.

The membership comprises five different nationalities, including eleven British officials. As is the case in all the cities in this area, with the exception of Singapore, the number of suitable men in commerce and trade is few. The first President was O.E.Venables but owing to his having been transferred to Grik, he had to turn this office over to W.D.Barron. Owing to the difficulty of finding a suitable place to meet, for the present the Club will meet twice a month. It was chartered on December 4, 1929.

Jim Davidson had previously visited Kuala Lumpur, having left Rangoon on the 5th for Penang and travelled by rail to Kuala Lumpur. When he reached there, he found an embryonic Rotary Club which had been meeting monthly for over a year. This club had come into existence through the initiative of L.D.Gammans who had visited Rotary clubs in England, the USA and Japan, and saw the need for organization to develop and maintain good will among the different racial groups, Chinese, Malays, Indians, Singalese and the many Europeans connected with the Government. There were many in mining, rubber, general commerce and trade. The club had been awaiting Jim Davidson’s arrival to obtain their charter. Now on September 27,1929, the club was officially inaugurated. This club interestingly held regular lunch meetings with an evening dinner meeting once a month.

In Perak, a club was started at Ipoh, the FMS’s second largest city.

Ipoh’s organzation meeting was held on October 11, 1929, with 42 full members and His Highness the Sultan of Perak an Honorary Member.

From north of the Malay Peninsula to the south, but not in chronological order, Davidson was responsible for the creation of clubs in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Klang and Coast (now called Klang), Seremban, Malacca and Singapore (now independent).


After Singapore the Davidsons spent Christmas 1929 in Soerabaja (now Surabaya). On Boxing Day they went on to Bali for a short holiday, describing it as “most unreal, the most unique and yet withal the most fascinating place I have ever seen.” He visited the two clubs on Java, Soerabaja and Djogjakarta, both of which had been organised in August 1927.
Each had a membership of about 20, but Prince Pakoe Alam at Djogjakarta was the only native member. At Soerabaja both the Burgomaster and Governor were members. After a few days here the Davidsons went onto Semarang.

When Davidson arrived in Batavia, Java, to start work on January 29, 1930, he was fortunate ernough to have with him introductory letters from the Foreign Office in London to Sir Josiah Crosby the British Consul General, who, he learned, was expecting him. Crosby took Davidson to see the Governor General who had also been told by his Minister of the Colonies in The Hague to expect him.

On March 18 in the Hotel des Indes, the inaugural meeting was held with some 70 people present, 8 of whom were Javanese and 5 Chinese. A few members had previously been members of another Javanese club in Surabaya. The following day the inaugural meeting of the Bandoeng Club was held, The idea of holding these meetings on consecutive days was to accommodate a visit by Guy Gundaker of Philadelphia, President of RI in 1923/4. He arrived in Batavia early on the 18th, spoke at the club there and then flew with Davidson to Bandoeng’s meeting on the 19th.

The energetic pair drove through the night to a lunch meeting at the Djokjakarta Club and then a 6 hour rail journey onto another lunch the next day at the Surabaya Club…. 4 days 4 Rotary lunches!

From Java, Jim Davidson reported that he intended to return to Singapore and Penang.

Researched and written by RGHF Senior Historian Basil Lewis (UK) 12 May 2007